Why are the Estonians called a singing nation?

​If you ask an Estonian to sing, you’ll be probably met with an embarrassed refusal. Yet, the typical Estonian willingly sings in a choir, and choral music is considered by many to be a symbol of the country at large. Estonians’ byname of a singing nation largely derives from the tradition of song festivals that has brought together choirs from all over the country since the mid-19th century. It was further validated during the Singing Revolution of the 1980s – mass gatherings of people at the Song Festival Ground in Tallinn to demand the restoration of national independence via singing patriotic songs. Nowadays, Estonian Song and Dance Festivals that take place every five years are included in the list of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

​While Estonians are often regarded as being frugal with words, their cultural world is very much based upon texts. Several key composers, for instance, have looked for inspiration in folk poetry, and found their stimuli in the 1 300 000 page folklore collection in the Estonian Literary Museum. In the wider world, though, Estonia is probably better known through its less language-centred composers such as Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür.

On the whole, Estonia’s cultural life rests on the stubborn insistence of explaining the world from the nation’s satiric, fresh viewpoint, combined with promoting the Estonian-language education across the full spectre of music, theatre, figurative and applied art, architecture, film, and last but not least, traditional culture.

​This faith in education is based on the high literacy rate acquired via public schools since the late 1600s, as well as on the strong literary tradition that took off from the publication of the national epic Kalevipoeg in the mid-19th century. Literature’s role increased during the occupations, when the ability to write and read between the lines provided a key tool for the culture-centred resistance.

The majority of Estonians still have many shelves full of books at home, and every small town and large village features a public library – 500 altogether. Although new cultural attractions have emerged, there is no sign that books are becoming obsolete; the writer and the poet are still seen as tribunes of the people.

​Another arts domain that is also largely reliant on language, as well as being close to the Estonian heart, is theatre – from vibrant scenes of drama, music and dance in Tallinn and Tartu to the long-established theatrical centres of Rakvere and Viljandi, county towns of less than 20 000 inhabitants.

Considering that the country’s population numbers only 1.34 million, the one million theatre visits and one hundred new productions a year are remarkable achievements indeed. The spectator numbers peak in the three-month open-air season with troupes performing in meadows, bog islands and manor houses, and audiences hailing from every corner of the country.

​The Estonian film industry produces films for one of the smallest audiences in the world, comparable in that respect, only with Iceland. This has not been an inhibiting factor, as documentaries, feature and animated films are released every year. The latter especially have taken the names of Estonian film-makers to the international arena, where their original cartoons and puppet animations, abounding in ironic metaphors, have attracted much attention and received many awards.

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